FRIDAY, 28 SEPTEMBER
6:00 PM First Keynote Address
This is Not a Broadway Body
STACY WOLF, Princeton University
In the US theatrical cultural imagination, the Broadway body is a triple threat performer. They’re probably white, ethnically unmarked, thin but muscular, with straight teeth and silky hair. Their singing voice is rich and expressive. They execute impeccable choreography. They speak clearly, precisely, and with appropriate feeling. The Broadway body calls up identification and desire, admiration and envy. This talk is not about that body, but rather, the amateur body and its performances at community theatres, high schools, and summer camps.
SATURDAY, 29 SEPTEMBER
9:00 – 10:30 AM Session 1: Characters’ Bodies
Music Classroom Building 102
“Sumpin’ Wrong Inside Him”: Issues of Eugenics and Disability in Adapting Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
ANDREW TUBBS, The University of Iowa
While critics have praised Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943) for its integration of book, music, and dance, the show’s presentation of a homogeneous community in the wake of the American eugenics movement cannot be overlooked when assessing the musical’s cultural impact. In a show that privileged a cohesive community identity, the character of Jud Fry sits as the foreign outsider, threatening the community’s social and musical order through the songs “Poor Jud is Daid” and “Lonely Room.” Scholars, such as Andrea Most and Bruce Kirle, have ascribed varying ethnic and racial identities to Jud, particularly a Jewish or Native-America identity, to contextualize his Otherness. In relation to America’s lasting eugenic thought, however, Jud’s psychotic villainy aligns with period notions of feeble-mindedness. Eugenicist construed the idea of the feeble-minded by conflating notions of race, ethnicity, class, and impairment. Thus, Jud reveals the porous delineations between these identity categories in American thought. This study tracks the eugenic fear of feeble-mindedness through Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and its 1955 film version through an adaptation study of the famous “Dream Ballet.” Although the public fervor surrounding the scientific endeavors of the American eugenics movement waned by the 1940s, public conceptualization of the disabled body still relied heavily upon eugenic metaphors. Jud’s Othering musical and textual characterizations, grounded in the lingering eugenic sensibilities of the mid-twentieth century, betray an inherent disabled, threat to the narrative’s newly unified community, and therefore ultimately justifies his euthanization.
The Absent Broadway Body: Michael Bennett’s Scandal
VIRGINIA ANDERSON, Connecticut College
Scandal, director/choreographer Michael Bennett explains, is “about sex. It’s really about relationships, but when you tell people you’re doing a musical about relationships, they’re not interested the way they are when you say you’re doing a musical about sex.” Written by Treva Silverman with music by Jimmy Webb, Scandal was directed, choreographed, and produced by Michael Bennett. Never completed, the musical was arguably the last production of Bennett’s career before he, himself, passed away due to AIDS-related illness.
In the earliest years of the epidemic, AIDS affected not only musicals already in production but the risks producers were willing to take. Scandal was marred by public fears associated with AIDS, which colored its 1985 reception and ultimately prevented its scheduled Broadway run. While a sexual awakening was life-affirming to the musical’s protagonist, some found the sexually charged content to be promoting deadly behavior, especially in light of the growing conservatism and the burgeoning epidemic. The sexual transmission of HIV had been acknowledged and anonymous sex, once representing sexual liberation, was perceived by many to be foolish if not downright suicidal.
This paper draws on interviews with practitioners and Michael Bennett’s papers, archived at Yale University, which include the unpublished script and various workshop materials. It considers two competing spectacles: the “orgiastic” plot and choreography of Scandal and the contemporary, fear-based media frenzy surrounding AIDS. Through its very absence in final production, Scandal represents a tantalizing gap in Bennett’s career while functioning as a cultural marker of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Broadway theatre.
“Here She Is, World!”: Locating the Aging Female Body in Gypsy
MICHAEL EVANS KINNEY, Stanford University
The bodies of aging women have been present on Broadway stages throughout the history of musical theatre, but their position has been physically and aurally marginal; Broadway is traditionally the domain of youthful starlets, showgirls, and dancers. This paper critically examines where the bodies of aging women are found in musicals, how these bodies variously appear and disappear, and the political potential of locating the aging woman’s body in musical theatre. The 1959 Styne and Sondheim musical Gypsy acts as a model text for this paper. I suggest that it is among the first musicals to centralize aging in developing character psychology, becoming a trope throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
This paper focuses on the character Rose, the infamous stage mother whose ambition is seen to be her tragic flaw. I will argue that locating Rose as an aging woman leads to a reparative reading of Gypsy, one in which we explore the ambivalences and difficulties of the aging process, while celebrating the aging body and its complexities. Methodologically, I use the show’s status as “back-stage” musical to construct a paradigm of diegetic/non-diegetic spaces coded as youthful/aging where Rose is found to demonstrate various levels of presence, both aurally and visually. Where previous analyses of Gypsy have focused on themes of gender, sexuality, and familial conflicts that paint Rose as a monstrous and pathetic figure, an age-focused reading of Gypsy shows how we can applaud the aging woman for her strength and perseverance when confronted with age discrimination.
11 AM – 12:30 PM Session 2: Nontraditional Bodies on Stage
Music Classroom Building 102
Vivienne Segal and the Spectacle of Age on Stage
JULIANNE LINDBERG, The University of Nevada, Reno
Vivienne Segal’s Broadway career spanned from 1915 to 1953, an unusually long stretch for an actor first typecast as a sweet-faced ingénue. Though Segal initially gained fame for her roles in operettas, she later transformed her image by playing complex, world-wizened heroines in a number of musical comedies by Rodgers and Hart. Her skill as a singer was always remarked upon by critics, first aligned with naivety, sweetness, and youth, and later with worldliness and elegance. This paper will trace Segal’s career, paying particular attention to how she navigated critical reactions to her age, and to her later efforts to break free from typecasting. An actress who never fully transitioned to Hollywood (unlike contemporaries Jeanette MacDonald and Irene Dunne), Segal’s legacy reflects both the freedoms and limitations endured by women on the Broadway stage.
“I Know They’re Kids But They’re Awesome!”: The Virtuosic Spectacle of Child Prodigies in Billy Elliot and School of Rock
CURTIS RUSSELL, CUNY
Then-New York Magazine critic Jesse Green’s critique of the children in Broadway’s School of Rock damns them with faint praise: “They sing very well, (and) are not overly adorable.” This soft bigotry of low expectations is typical in critical considerations of child performers, yet the young actors in School of Rock challenge such notions by not just singing, acting, and dancing, but playing their own instruments. Similarly, the musical Billy Elliot required its child actors to be proficient in gymnastics and classical ballet. The two musicals are further linked by the explicit narrativization of concerns with juvenile virtuosity; both stories center on children struggling to prove their artistic competency to intransigent parents.
In Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre, Shauna Vey explores the various ways child performers have subverted reductive societal notions that paint children as delicate and sacred. Likewise, Stacy Wolf has argued that performance celebrates women, regardless of narrative constrictions; I believe the same can be said for children. By placing Vey’s critical lens in conversation with Wolf’s, I argue that child performers in School of Rock and Billy Elliot destabilize what are ultimately conservative narratives through the embodied performance of virtuosity. Though the musicals make a quasi-exploitative spectacle of the children while reinscribing the wisdom of adulthood as society’s stabilizing force, the children’s specialized labor presents them as the functional, agentive equals of their parents and guardians.
Embodiment, Cultural Memory, and the Performance of History
ELISSA HARBERT, DePauw University
What does it mean when an African American man portrays the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, or when a woman inhabits the role, as in several recent productions of 1776? How does the depiction of Andrew Jackson as a bloodthirsty rock star change the way twenty-first-century people remember him? History musicals reimagine real people and events of the past from a present-day perspective. Focusing on history musicals about the early United States, such as 1776, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Hamilton, this paper argues that the onstage performance and the offstage identities and activities of the actors can influence cultural memory by reframing the past in terms of present-day politics.
Building upon Angela Pao’s study of nontraditional casting as well as the performance studies concept of the continuum between realism and theatricality (Davis and Postlewait 2003, Taylor 2012), I describe a spectrum of performance in history musicals, from the highly realist, in which actors physically resemble and behave like the personages they portray, to the highly theatrical, in which the actors draw attention to the fact that they are performing both present-day identities and an interpretation of their historical characters. The more theatrical the performance, the more pointed the critique of the differences in gender and racial politics between the past and the present. Actors’ embodiment of their characters onstage and the way they discuss their roles from present-day subjectivities in social media, interviews, and activism change how audiences imagine and engage with history, breathing new life and political critique into cultural memory.
1:30 PM Second Keynote Address
Music Classroom Building 102
Disability Musical Theater: Dramaturgy, Performance, Access, and Accommodation
JAMES LEVE, Northern Arizona University
Popular commercial (i.e., Broadway) musicals about disability reinforce ableist attitudes, the same attitudes that have historically excluded disabled actors, singers, and dancers from the professional and non-professional stage. These musicals exploit disability as metaphor and rely on cliché narratives about overcoming disability. However, away from the public spotlight of Broadway, musicals are being performed solely by people with disability, primarily at theater organizations committed to providing opportunities for performers typically excluded because of a physical, vocal, or mental impairment. My talk stems from the recognition that these two realms of musical theater operate in total isolation from each other, guided by entirely different practices, aesthetics, and goals. I have coined the term “disability musical theater” to describe these organizations and the innovative inclusionary practices that they devise in their efforts to provide access for performers and theatergoers with disability. Disability theater sees disability as an aesthetic value in itself, as part of the human condition. My talk explores the treatment of disability in mainstream commercial musicals such as Porgy and Bess and the activities of disability theater organizations such as Phamaly Theatre Company in Denver and Detour Company Theatre in Phoenix. I ultimately challenge assumptions about dancing bodies and singing voices with the goal of encouraging a new musical theater aesthetic, one that can be applied to musical theater dramaturgy, casting practices, and reception.
3:30 – 5:00 PM Session 3: Revivals
Music Classroom Building 102
Reviving Shuffle Along: Embodiment and the Haunting of Race
JOANNA DEE DAS, Washington University in St. Louis
In 2016, writer/director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover premiered their revival of the landmark 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which they renamed Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. While all revivals face issues with relevance to twenty-first century audiences, some shows are, in Bryan Vandevender’s words, more “time-bound” than others. In no case is this truer than with black-cast shows produced during Jim Crow America. This paper focuses on the strategies Wolfe and Glover used to challenge the racial logic that circumscribed the original production: namely, reinvention of the book (to the point where the Tony Awards committee determined that the show was not a revival) and entirely new choreography. Because dance has historically been difficult to document and even more difficult to copyright, choreographers have seemingly been free from messy questions about adaptation haunting other creative team members. Building upon the work of Rebecca Schneider, however, I argue that dance does remain, haunting the movement of the twenty-first century chorus. In analyzing Glover’s choreography, this paper evaluates how the revamped Shuffle Along contended with the embodied legacies of race.
Can I Remember How This Song and Dance Began?: Memory and Embodiment in the Broadway Revivals of Sweet Charity
BRYAN M. VANDEVENDER, Bucknell University
In May of 2005, the second Broadway revival of Sweet Charity opened to decidedly mixed reviews. Many New York theatre critics claimed a strong affinity for the musical’s original production, but lamented the revival, directing their lukewarm reviews and pointed criticism at the production’s direction, staging, and star performer—precisely the same elements that critics had celebrated twenty-nine years prior. The original 1966 production of Sweet Charity established Bob Fosse as a premiere director-choreographer and confirmed Gwen Verdon as a true Broadway star. The question that critics tacitly asked of the revival: can Sweet Charity ever succeed on Broadway without direction from Fosse and a virtuosic star like Verdon to carry it?
This response reveals the paradox of musical revivals. The ghosts of past performances—to borrow language from Marvin Carlson’s The Haunted Stage—will always haunt future stagings. The American musical, particularly works created during the highly mythologized Golden Age, is arguably one of the most haunted forms of theatre in American culture due to the variety of ways in which the memory of original productions has been preserved and reified over time. Because producers of musical revivals attempt to capitalize on nostalgia, new productions of classic musicals can come to represent a type of embodied memory. Moreover, actors in musicals revivals often embody the ghosts of past performances. An investigation of this phenomenon utilizing the three major Broadway productions of Sweet Charity as case studies, this essay analyzes critics’ reviews, marketing materials, and approaches to direction and performance in an attempt to determine the nature and significance of ghosting in musical theatre.
“A Real Fat Girl”: Fat Stigma and Re-Casting Effie
RYAN DONOVAN, CUNY
An early casting breakdown for the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls indicated that candidates for the role “can be chubby but should not be a real fat girl.” This breakdown begs the question of what “a real fat girl” is. The irony, of course, is that Jennifer Holliday, who was then a “real fat girl,” won the role and a Tony Award for playing it. Effie remains the only leading role in Broadway musicals to be regularly cast with a fat black woman. By the mid-1980s, it became standard practice to “pad” thinner Effies with a fat suit despite disavowals from the creative team that she was not a fat character. Effie is also a role whose casting is marked by fat stigma deeply tied to Holliday’s iconic performance, the size of her voice, and, crucially, the size of her body. Fat stigma prevented many from seeing Effie and Holliday as human. Stigma has always been about bodily difference.
Broadway musicals make these intersections visible through the casting process, which explicitly determines which bodies are seen and which are not. The relation of fat stigma to the labor practice of casting informs this presentation, which draws from fat studies, musical theatre studies, and the social psychology of stigma to ask: How do fat female bodies fit into socio-economic and representational systems that stigmatize them, especially the closed economy of Broadway musicals? How do Broadway musicals paradoxically normalize and stigmatize these bodies in production through the use of fat suits, and in reception via critical responses?